Did that make you cringe a little bit? Me, too. Anyone who has spent any time in the parenting communities of various social media platforms knows that those two little words can start comment wars filled with criticism, shame, and disdain.
So…let’s talk about it!
What’s the deal with screen time?
As a former Early Interventionist, I could probably Do Better when it comes to the recommendations for (or, rather, against) screen time for babies and toddlers. This has become an even bigger talking point in parenting communities since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Caregivers have had to figure out ways to be able to work from home while keeping their babies and toddlers occupied, due to closed daycares or ill babysitters.
If you’re unaware, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under 18 months of age, except for video chatting. They also say children between 2 and 5 years should get an hour or less of high-quality screen time each day.
Before my daughter was born, I was so sure I was going to be one of those moms who limited screen time, especially during the earliest years of her life. I had these grand plans of being a Pinterest Mom, engaging Everett in all kinds of motor and sensory activities so she could explore the world around her.
Then a month after she was born, my wife went back to work, and I was at home with Everett by myself for two months. I quickly learned that if I was going to get anything at all done each day, I was going to have to put her down and leave her to her own devices for short periods of time.
It turned out to be a completely unrealistic expectation that we would be a “no screen time” family, for several reasons. Heather and I almost always have the TV on when we’re at home and awake, even if just for background noise. Baby-wearing was uncomfortable for me in the early months. And Everett was not the kind of baby who was content with just lying down and looking at things by herself. She tolerated her bassinet only for sleep, she lasted a minute or two in the bouncer, and she outright hated the Mamaroo.
What’s a mom to do?
Enter “Hey Bear” on YouTube. It was magical for us. Bright, happy fruits and vegetables on a black background, dancing to upbeat tunes and calming lullabies? Yes, please! The high contrast colors and the repetitive, rhythmic animations caught Everett’s attention. The music was catchy without being terribly annoying.
This show saved me throughout Everett’s infancy. She would happily sit in her bouncer and watch for short periods throughout the day. “Hey Bear” is one of the main reasons I was able to pump breastmilk, go to the bathroom, and make dinner most days.
Many of the concerns about early childhood screen time revolve around the possibility that it will cause speech delays and poor social skills. I haven’t read all the literature, but my personal view is that while replacing human interaction with TV or electronic devices (i.e. using screens as a full-time babysitter) is likely to impede development to some degree, screen time as a whole is not the enemy of early childhood learning that it’s made out to be.
In fact, I credit the way we’ve implemented screen time to be partly responsible for Everett’s advanced vocabulary. We’ve been teaching simple signs since she was 6 months old, and she spoke her first clear word at 7 months. Now at 15 months, she has a functional vocabulary of over 100 words and signs, and she’s already using a lot of 2-word phrases consistently.
How do we do it?
What really counts in our favor is living in small spaces. In our apartment, and now in our RV, it’s been really easy to participate in TV-watching with Everett. No, we don’t always sit right next to her while she watches a favorite show. But from the very beginning, I would talk to her from the stove and narrate what was on the screen while she watched dancing pineapples and blueberries. As we added new shows into the rotation, we focused on shows she found interesting and enjoyable as well as shows that we could easily engage with from a few feet away.
We don’t limit screen time, in the sense that we don’t allow Everett “x” minutes or hours per day. We generally still have the TV on all the time, whether it’s a kids’ YouTube show, a cooking video, or a true crime show. Sometimes Everett pays attention to her shows, sometimes she doesn’t. Sometimes we do notice she’s a little too zoned out in front of the screen. When this happens, we turn it off for a bit and redirect. This is what works well for our family.
So what do we watch with Everett?
Top 7 Recommendations for Kids’ Shows with High-Quality Content for Babies and Toddlers
This is a great first option for babies who just need something interesting to look at and listen to. Most of the videos on the Hey Bear Sensory YouTube channel are between 10 and 25 minutes. This can be perfect for getting little tasks done around the home or just for a break. There are longer videos, as well, up to an hour. I’ve found that many of those use more relaxing imagery and music, and they’re nice as a calm-down before naps. Overall, Hey Bear has been a favorite in our home.
An Early Intervention client’s mother recommended this one to me, and it was the second YouTube channel we introduced Everett to. Miss Rachel is a music educator and songwriter, and she makes really engaging, interactive videos for babies and toddlers to teach language, rhythm, music, and a variety of other concepts. She’s perfected the Preschool Teacher persona, and Everett loves watching her. A lot of the videos feature Sesame Street-style puppets, voiced by Miss Rachel’s husband (also a musician). They also feature Jules, a nonbinary singer/songwriter who engages kids in songs about trains, dinosaurs, feelings, and more.
This is a collection of kids’ songs—classic and updated nursery rhymes as well as original songs—set to videos of animated characters (often animals) and puppets. We watch on YouTube, but I’ve also seen some of their videos on Amazon Prime. You can also find individual songs, printables, activities, and even an app on the Super Simple website. The video collections on YouTube have a range of lengths, themes, and animation styles. There are even a few we turn on just to wind down for naptime. The only real downside to Super Simple Songs for me is that they have several versions of “The Wheels on the Bus,” and I’m never sure which one Everett is requesting when she rolls her hands and says “bus.”
4. Akili and Me
This is Everett’s latest favorite, although it’s geared towards kids 3-6 years old. Akili and Me features a 4-year-old girl in Tanzania, who goes to the magical world of Lala Land every night when she falls asleep. While there, she interacts with other children and animals to explore concepts such as numbers, letters, art, social-emotional skills, and English as a second language. The animation is pretty simple and not excessively stimulating, unlike other shows for this age group. The videos on YouTube range from just a couple minutes to about half an hour. Everett does a little dance whenever the theme song comes on and says “hi, A-li-li!” While the concepts of the show are a bit advanced for her, I imagine we’ll be watching it long enough for her to learn a lot from it.
This one is still pretty new to us, but we like it so far. Awnie reads children’s books aloud on her videos, to supplement family reading time and to encourage a love of literature from an early age. She also shares “Awnie’s Kitchen” segments, in which she and her grandkids make little treats together. The videos are generally about 4-6 minutes long and share quality images of each book Awnie reads.
While Everett isn’t super into this one yet, I think it’s a high-quality option that is worth recommending. Gracie’s Corner is another music-based show, focusing on education, fun, and diversity. This show entertains with updates to classic nursery rhymes, such as a Second Line remix of “BINGO,” as well as songs to teach daily living routines and educational concepts. Most videos are a single song, but there are also a few collections for longer viewing.
Do I really need to say anything about Sesame Street? It’s certainly evolved a lot over the years, but it’s definitely still a family favorite. We watch segments and full episodes on a variety of platforms (YouTube, PBS Kids, HBO Max), and that’s what’s great about this classic stand-by: there are so many options for watching, whether you want to see what your favorite furry monsters are up to in 2022, or you want to show your child what the characters were like when you were a kid. There doesn’t seem to be as much emphasis on pre-academic skills as there used to be, but I love that there is more focus on social-emotional learning. Segments are longer and often more story-like than they used to be, as well.
But Alex, what about the Mom Guilt?
As you can see, there are a lot of options for high-quality shows for babies and toddlers, and considering how simple it’s become to create digital content, I have no doubt that more people will start to develop their own shows in the years to come.
But I’ll be honest: I do occasionally still have some Mama Guilt about how much Everett looks at a screen. I just have to remind myself that interacting with digital platforms is going to be a big part of the future. If we start her off early with a healthy relationship and familiarity with technology, we’ll be better equipped to help her learn and adjust to new things going forward.
What do you think?
Have you watched any of these educational shows with your toddler, or are you going to try them out? What are your favorite learning videos? Share them in the comments!
Want some additional tips for how to use screen time in your family routine to benefit your child in a positive way? Subscribe to my email list below, and I’ll send you a handout with the ideas that work best for my family!